West to a Land of Plenty

Interesting twist: I hated this book as a kid, and enjoyed it way, way more as an adult. Who knew?

West To A Land of Plenty: The Diary of Teresa Angelino Viscardi, New York to Idaho Territory, 1883, Jim Murphy, 1998.


A few things I was mistaken about: this is one of the earliest DA books published (number eight out of thirty-six!), and it’s set a bit earlier than I thought (1883), and it’s one of the very few written by a man. Jim Murphy also wrote Land of the Buffalo Bones, which I hated, and Barry Denenberg wrote five (for which my tally was one good, one mediocre, three awful). While it’s well-written, it drags in places and has some uneven pacing. The characterization is great and makes up for some of the shortfalls—but one of the biggest shortfalls is that this is intended to be about utopian, planned communities in the Western US, but that barely comes up at all. Which is such a shame! I would have loved it if that aspect had been a bigger, more important part of the story, but instead it comes across as more of a basic crossing-the-country story, which is already amply covered.

As a kid, the only thing I liked about this book was that it was pretty. (It’s ivory! Pretty!) Other than that, I hated Teresa, the protagonist, and her irritating little sister Netta. I thought they were both annoying and deserved to be unhappy. As an adult, I found it surprisingly enjoyable. Rather than annoying, I found it enjoyable and entertaining and realistic. I don’t know what it says about me that when I was actually among the target audience I hated it but now that I’ve aged out of it I like it better. Or what it says about the book. Who knows.

Teresa, at fourteen, is en route from her home in New York to a planned community in Idaho with her parents, her three younger siblings, her grandmother, and a number of aunts and uncles and cousins. “I hate this train and its tiny wooden seats and the cacarocielu crawling everywhere! And the rain. I HATE IT!!” So you know it’s shaping up to be great so far. She’s extremely upset at having to leave her home and her friends in New York, and the fact that the train is slow and miserable and dirty has not made things one bit better for her. I don’t know why I didn’t like this growing up—this is 100% accurate how most kids feel when being forced to move. The structure of this diary is a bit different, because Teresa shares it with her twelve-year-old sister Netta, who writes in it almost as much as Teresa does. It’s a really interesting shift—Teresa tends to write more about their days and who is doing what, and Netta writes a bit more about her feelings and thoughts and plans for the future. It’s subtle, but nicely done.

Continue reading


I know this book is older than most of the ones I do, but I was absolutely obsessed with this book as a kid (why? Who knows) and I found my old copy and couldn’t let it go.

Constance: A Story of Early Plymouth, Patricia Clapp, 1968.


Look at that cover. I wouldn’t say it was a masterwork of art, but hey, my copy says “4.95” on the back cover so clearly we weren’t dealing with an absolute bulwark of the literary world.

Now, my copy of this definitely says “10 Up,” and I read it when I was ten or so, but…wow, this was an awfully big step from most of the other stuff I was reading at that age! And while I’m sure I could understand it just fine, I definitely did not Get It because there is a lot of kissing, relationship tangles, and political infighting in this book that just flew straight over my head. Why did I like it so much at ten??? The world will never know.

I think in particular the great strength of this book is that it’s not about the voyage of the Mayflower and the landing on Plymouth Rock. I mean, it happens, obviously, but the emphasis is on what happens next which almost never happens. It’s kind of like how there’s lots of YA books about the Civil War, but none about the Reconstruction period, or lots of books about the Revolutionary War but none about the years afterward. But I think it’s particular important in this story, because usually the narrative around the Pilgrims is “they landed on Plymouth Rock, plenty of them died, Squanto saves them, they had Thanksgiving while wearing buckle hats, and then we skip right to the Salem Witch Trials.” Duh, there was a lot of stuff in the meantime that gets glossed over! But this book does a great job of going into some detail.

Continue reading

Hear My Sorrow

We’re into Deep Cuts territory with Dear America now, and this is the very last book of the “original flavour” series to be released. (I’ll get into the relaunch and newer books later. I have A Lot of Thoughts.)

Hear My Sorrow: The Diary of Angela Denoto, A Shirtwaist Worker, New York City, 1909, Deborah Hopkinson, 2004.


Now, Deborah Hopkinson wrote a nonfiction book about life in the tenements in New York City, which was great, so this book is just bursting with colourful detail. This is a pretty strong note for Dear America to end on, with a really solid story—even if tenement life and the Triangle Shirtwaist story is relatively well-known, this is a nice addition. However, it shares a lot of similarities with the 2002 novel Ashes of Roses, which I will get to later, but I don’t think it’s close enough to really be that much of a problem, I’m just nitpicking.

Continue reading

The Journal of Otto Peltonen

I’ve been deliberately skipping the My Name is America books because I think they’re boring, but here’s one that’s pretty interesting (written by the same guy who wrote Sean Sullivan, which could win awards for being boring).

The Journal of Otto Peltonen: A Finnish Immigrant, Hibbings, Minnesota, 1905, William Durbin, 2000.


Why don’t the MNIA books get clever titles? It’s so dull. They relaunched the series in 2012 and did give them titles, which is cool, but this one was not chosen for reissue and hence didn’t get a new title. My copy does have a fold-out section at the back with a cross-section map of an iron mine, which is pretty cool, though. Interestingly, the books across all the series tend to have a strong pro-union bias, which pops up in this book (as we shall see) as well as the newsie diary set in 1899, the Dear America novel Hear My Sorrow about shirtwaist workers, A Coal Miner’s Bride (again with the mining!), and to a lesser extent in Days of Toil and Tears (Dear Canada).

The other thing that tends to be a bit less engaging about the MNIA (and I Am Canada, etc.,) is that they need to be focused on older boys in order to effectively be a part of the story (generally: war, or work, and it’s a real stretch to get an 11-year-old protagonist involved in a war that’s not on the home front). But that is frustrating in itself—the books are targeted at younger boys, but the protagonists are older, which isn’t strange, but it ends up reading as a strange mishmash between the two ages. Eventually I am going to get around to reviewing I Am Canada, which suffers from a lot of the same issues, but in the meantime I will just say that if you’re going to write series about girls where they experience the war at home, you can do that with boys, too. Plenty of young teenage and preteen boys experienced wars and social upheaval at home, without having to go Be In It! That’s a valid plot for a book, too! But the only MNIA that really covers this is one where there’s a kid who’s a witness to the Battle of Fredericksburg, and they already had a journal about a Civil War soldier anyhow.

Continue reading

Alone In An Untamed Land

This book is one of the first Dear Canada books I read, and it still stands up after all these years. (Almost ten!) It’s so good that I recommend it to adult readers looking for an intro to the filles du roi story (as we discussed last week, there’s a severe dearth of adult historical fiction on the topic).

Alone in an Untamed Land: The Filles du Roi Diary of Hélène St. Onge, Montreal, New France, 1666, Maxine Trottier, 2003.

helene st onge

Also as I mentioned last week, the basic plots of this is pretty similar to The King’s Daughter, probably because there are only so many places you can go with this idea. The young women who were selected had no families or were too impoverished to be picky, they traveled a long way, and something like 99% of them got married to voyageurs, merchants, or soldiers, and had huge families. This has an interestingly weird subplot, though, but we’ll get to that in due time.

Hélène St. Onge is thirteen years old and orphaned following the death of her father the previous winter. She lives with her older sister, Catherine, in their home, even though they can’t really pay their bills after his death. They have a cousin in New France who married a woman and then immediately died, and Catherine is engaged to a young man named Armand, who also lives in New France and whose father is an old family friend. So they already have ties to New France, and it’s not entirely surprising when their cousin and guardian offers to ship them over to New France on the king’s dime , although Catherine balks at allowing Hélène to do it too, citing the fact that she’s only thirteen. But Catherine packs up and they’re both off to Montreal within twenty pages. I like a nice brisk start to the plot without too much dicking around in the backstory.

Continue reading

Land Of The Buffalo Bones

So last week we covered DC’s treatment of English settlers on the prairies, now let’s see what Dear America’s take on it is.

Land Of The Buffalo Bones: The Diary of Mary Ann Elizabeth Rodgers, An English Girl In Minnesota, New Yeovil, Minnesota, 1873, Marion Dane Bauer, 2003.

polly rodgers

Right from the get-go you know this is going to be depressing. Just look at the title! It’s like calling it “Land Of Terrible Things: Now With More Terrible Things.” You just know that there is not a shred of happiness to be found within this book.

Continue reading

A Prairie As Wide As The Sea

It’s time for another compare-and-contrast between a Dear Canada and Dear America book. This time: Western settlement!

A Prairie As Wide As The Sea: The Immigrant Diary of Ivy Weatherall, Milorie, Saskatchewan, 1926, Sarah Ellis, 2001.

ivy weatherall

It’s Sarah Ellis again, whom I love! She is fantastic, and this book is fascinating. Next week we’ll cover Dear America’s book on the same topic and discuss the similarities and differences. Both books are about English immigrant girls from lower-middle-class families who come to the prairies after buying into promises of untold wealth for the hardworking. Spoiler alert: things do not go as planned.

Continue reading

One Eye Laughing, The Other Weeping

Barry Denenberg Redemption Arc, Part 1. Probably Part 1 of 1, but we’ll see. This is a step in the right direction.

One Eye Laughing, The Other Weeping: The Diary of Julie Weiss, Vienna, Austria, to New York, 1938, Barry Denenberg, 1938.


This is flat-out one of the most depressing DA books out there. It’s actually significantly more depressing than a book about slavery, and how awful is that? It’s far, far more depressing than the Titanic book where hundreds of people dying is the main plot!

Julie Weiss is a wealthy girl growing up in Austria with her family, where her father is a respected physician, her mother a renowned beauty, and her older brother a snotty intellectual college student. She likes to play cards with the family’s maid, Milli, and annoy her brother Max, and spend time with her best friend Sophy, and avoid practicing the piano, and so on. Her family is very, very well-off, and live in a large and fancy apartment in the centre of Vienna, complete with a dining room that seats twenty, priceless paintings, and so on.

Continue reading

Voyage on the Great Titanic

This is a Dear America that properly doesn’t even belong in the canon, as it is about a British girl who only actually sets foot in America over the last three pages. But this probably falls under Being Too Picky.

Voyage on the Great Titanic, The Diary of Margaret Ann Brady: R.M.S. Titanic, 1912, Ellen Emerson White, 1998.


There’s an awful lot of Titanic stories out there, and it’s somewhat overdone—we all know the story of the Titanic by now, so it’s hard to put a good, interesting spin on it. This came out the year after the film did, so it was capitalizing on a wave of Titanic-sentiment around that time. However, Ellen Emerson White does a nice job of creating a strong character in a fairly uninteresting story, and it’s a nice introduction to the story for younger readers.

Continue reading

So Far From Home

I should just rename this blog “Watch Me Torture Myself With Terrible Books.”

So Far From Home: The Diary of Mary Driscoll, an Irish Mill Girl, Lowell, Massachusetts, 1847, Barry Denenberg, 1997.

mary driscoll

If you see that name in the title you can probably figure out what my verdict is going to be, but let’s do this anyway. My main problem with this book is that Denenberg has created a terribly stereotypical character who even writes using a vague dialect. It’s all very strange and dreamy and kind of terrible all at the same time.

Continue reading